Laity Lodge’s 60-Year Journey

“How is one to assess the value of aesthetics—the impact of the beauty of Laity Lodge on the visitor who comes seeking inspiration? We know only that the setting plays a significant part and that Laity Lodge’s wide acceptance here and in other states is partly due to its beauty. One participant in the program developed by the Lilly Foundation said to Barbara Dan that he was familiar with retreat centers throughout the United States and that he knew of no development more beautiful than is Laity Lodge. And so all the principals in this work strive to maintain the natural beauty of the setting and to let its every accoutrement bear silent witness to the importance of what is being attempted.”

— Mary Holdsworth Butt

By now it’s a familiar sequence: turn south onto Hwy. 83 at the Garven Store; a few miles later, find the camp entrance and follow the caliche road downhill; turn left into the Frio River (while rolling the windows down); then a steep climb, through the cedars, across the cattle guard; leave the car behind and walk the pathway down to Laity Lodge.

Laity Lodge has always involved journey—whether it’s the Hill Country drive, the experiences that await every guest upon arrival, or even the evolution of the Lodge itself over time. But how do we mark the journey? And what does turning 60 mean for the future?

Maybe topography is a good place to start.

Real County, Texas, where the Lodge sits, is hardscrabble country: drought-ridden, flash-flood prone. It’s remote: cell service drops off long before the pavement ends. Early maps of the area show few roads. Instead, the scattered residents and occasional visitors relied on the stone-bottom river beds as byways. Wagon wheel ruts are still visible in the river at a nearby ranch.

To venture into this terrain was, and is, to risk the unknown.

In reminiscing about the beginning of Laity Lodge, our founder, Howard Butt, Jr., wrote:

The year 1961 proved to be a pivotal one for me. That year, we completed the basic construction of Laity Lodge. The time rolled around for our first retreat, which also served as a time to dedicate it all to God. While in the planning stages, we had visited many well-known retreat sites, gathering as much information as possible. Long hours had gone into planning the design of the retreat center, the design of the buildings, the building locations, the interior design—even the location of the parking lot.

However, we really didn’t have a program laid out. We had a retreat center, but no real plans on how to move forward. While it must have seemed well organized to those first attendees, I felt anxious not knowing exactly the direction God wanted us to go. At that time, I knew little or nothing about how to run a retreat center.

It was a transitional time in my public ministry. I was moving away from my comfort zone in large crusades and moving toward the spiritual awakening of the laity. Our limited vision at the time centered on the idea of wanting to inspire everyday working people that all life is sacred—including the workplace. That we are all called by Christ to be his wherever we are. We wanted Laity Lodge to be an intersection of ideas and life experiences. But we were on a journey into the unknown.

That journey has, by 2021, left us with some reliable ruts of our own to follow. We’ve learned a thing or two about “how to run a retreat center,” and we’ve settled on some fundamental commitments:

The need for rest and personal renewal. The high calling of the laity. The life of the mind. A fidelity to scripture. Personal witness—sharing, honesty, vulnerability. Mental wellness. A contemplative impulse (the Quiet House would be built in 1979). Music. Art. Good food (lots). Relationships with churches from across the region. Small groups (even when such a concept was new and uncertain). Prayer. Recreation. Conversation.

And storytelling. There isn’t space here to begin to tell all the stories that have emerged from sixty years of retreats. But if there were, the prevailing themes would include friendship and affection, tenderness, and joy.

If these are the ruts we’ve cut, where do they lead? Where do we see the Lodge’s 60-year journey taking us next?

Toward an even deeper ministry of presence in this place—toward fostering an environment where the sense of the sacred can be recovered, again and again.

"In the stress of life, we all need time to heal and be rejuvenated by our Heavenly Father. While the very word itself may denote a step back, in reality a retreat sets us up to advance into the future. When we begin to feel trapped in a situation—when it feels we’re not going anywhere fast—a retreat, a time with God helps put it all into perspective. Stress tends to make us lose sight of the future, but God can restore our souls by helping us step back and see the bigger picture."

— Howard Butt, Jr.

We want to continue to discern and develop the life of the Lodge as an ongoing reality (not limited to weekend retreats only), and we want to create new avenues by which you can enter into it.

The pandemic, despite its countless hardships, has provided us with an opportunity to experiment with very small, very quiet, unprogrammed retreats. We’ve realized how meaningful the gift of open time in this place can be. The need for such personal, private retreat (still fully supported with communal meals and a daily rhythm of prayer) is as acute as ever, and we are committed to offering one of these Quiet Retreats every month for the foreseeable future.

At the same time, we want to go deeper with our more programmatic offerings. We want to invest in developing thematic retreats in which ideas and life experiences collide in fresh, surprising, and transformative ways. In the process, we want to build relationships with new contributors and guests.

We are working with partners to support smaller private retreat gatherings throughout the week. Many of these utilize the new micro-retreat space at Cedar Brake. Similarly, we are supporting artists and others through our emerging residency program.

In all of this, we see the work of the Lodge primarily happening in person, within the specific confines of this Canyon. This is a point of ongoing internal conversation for us. Certainly opportunity exists for content—artifacts, digital and otherwise— to flow out from the Lodge. It’s just that the main thing is always going to be what’s actually happening here. It’s necessarily small. Off the radar. Quiet. And it’s for you.

Laity Lodge is turning 60. It’s a happy occasion to look back and celebrate where we’ve been. (We’re planning some special celebratory touches throughout the summer!) Yet we have to admit to a measure of healthy restlessness, too. As our president, David Rogers, likes to remind us, the past is often best seen as a guidepost rather than a hitching post. So we are looking ahead, where we see new retreat terrain to explore—together with you—in Laity Lodge’s ongoing journey.

I came to Laity Lodge for the first time shortly after becoming a Christian and was warmly welcomed into a community of faithful, prayerful friends and encountered ideas and experiences that greatly expanded my theological imagination and provided new depth to my relationship with Jesus. My first weekend at the Lodge was pivotal in my faith journey, gently prodding me from spiritual childhood to increasing Christian maturity by guiding me towards authentic Christian life, and modeling how hospitality and open heart posture can help us minister to others. Now, as I continue to come back, the Lodge strengthens and encourages my faith, has provided a community of friends who walk with me all year around, and has even helped me to realize a call to the ministry!

— Zoe Cordes Selbin

Only One, a poem by Olga Samples-Davis

A Timeline of Laity Lodge

Take a look back at the history of Laity Lodge and its leaders.


More from this issue

How this Canyon Ops Director Found New Grounds

As a teenager, Carlos Navarro worked as a groundskeeper. Now he’s the senior director of Canyon operations.

Where the Big Red Sage Grows Wild

It only grows wild in eight places in the world. The Canyon is one of those places.

The Purpose of Crew

LLYC Crew enlists high school students to a time of transformative service.

The Sacred Work of the SA Fatherhood Campaign

The SAFC teaches men to reflect the gentleness they're cultivating within.

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